Regional planning and transit: adequate funding is the key

By Ray Tomalty and Justin Bur

En transit 1:1, Fall 2003

The new amalgamated cities of Montreal and Longueuil were created in January 2002 as part of a wider metropolitan reorganization that had started a year earlier with the creation of the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM). In theory, the CMM finally allows the Montreal region to address planning and development issues over its entire territory in a coherent manner. In practice, the transition from intermunicipal rivalry and fragmented decision-making to a true regional vision has not been easy, and it will take some time before the CMM reaches its potential.

Transportation is one of the most important regional issues and has had its own regional planning and operating agency since 1996, the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT). The AMT is an agency of the provincial Ministry of Transport, though the province intends to transfer it to the region in the long term. It makes sense to link the AMT and the CMM more closely: land-use and transportation planning are intimately intertwined. For the same reason, highway planning in the region should also come under regional control. Before any change is made in the AMT’s status or the CMM’s jurisdiction, however, there are vital funding issues to be resolved and the CMM must have matured enough to have developed a coherent regional vision.


Vancouver and Toronto are in a similar situation but have dealt with it in very different ways. In Vancouver, the city transit system had long been part of a provincially-run regional system (BC Transit). In April 1999, responsibility for the transit system was transferred to the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), which has existed since July 1967. Over the past 35 years, a spirit of consensus on regional issues has gradually emerged.

The new regional transit agency, TransLink, has full authority over major roads (though not provincial highways) and the planning and coordination of all transit services. It does not actually deliver transit service; instead, operations are delegated to subsidiary companies and contractors. TransLink is required to implement a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategy: a series of measures to encourage sustainable transportation practices and the development of multiple alternatives to solo car use.

Like other transportation agencies in Canada, TransLink has been dogged by funding shortages (like the AMT, it gets a share of the provincial gas tax - currently 8 cents a litre). Nevertheless, it is generally considered to be a very successful agency in terms of coordinating services, managing the system efficiently, instituting TDM measures and so on. TransLink does not have land-use planning powers but, since its board members are drawn from among the mayors and councillors that sit on the GVRD board (plus three provincial representatives), the link between transportation and land-use planning is very strong. In addition, the legislation setting up TransLink required that the agency use the GVRD’s growth management plan (The Livable Region Strategic Plan of 1996) as a basis for its transportation planning.

TransLink has two administrative weaknesses: it does not have full control over capital spending on large transit projects (like extensions to the SkyTrain) and it does not control expansions to the provincial highway system in the region. These matters are still determined by the provincial department of transportation and typically reflect political priorities of the governing party, not the wishes of the GVRD.


The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has seventeen transit systems, including the regional rail and bus service called GO Transit, two transit systems operated by upper-tier municipalities, and 14 operated by lower-tier municipalities. Commuter rail is the backbone of the GO Transit system, a strong competitor to the automobile for long distance commuting trips within the region. It had almost 41 million riders in 2000 and is operating at or near capacity on most of its seven train routes. The largest of the municipally-run transit systems is the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which provides service within the City of Toronto. (It is in fact the second largest transit system in North America by ridership, after New York City Transit.)

Toronto has a strong tradition of cooperation within the boundaries of the former Metropolitan Toronto, now the amalgamated City of Toronto. Outside Metro, attempts to coordinate planning in the GTA have usually fallen short. The provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs ran an Office of the GTA for many years and anchored a Greater Toronto Coordinating Committee. After much study and discussion, a formal structure, the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB), was created as late as 1999 but abolished only two years later. Regional friction had been exacerbated by a high growth rate since the mid-1980s and by the determination of the provincial government after 1995 to diminish its participation in regional services. Too often the transfer of responsibility to regional or local administration was not accompanied by a corresponding transfer of resources.

GO Transit is a case in point. When the GTSB was created, GO Transit became the financial responsibility of the municipalities it serves, but without the benefit of a tax transfer from the province. The province then concentrated its resources on a large program of highway construction. When the GTSB was abolished, GO Transit went back to being provincially funded, to the great relief of the municipalities.

The GTSB was an inter-municipal agency made up of the upper-tier municipal chairpersons and lower-tier mayors, along with several City of Toronto councillors. It had a mandate to oversee (not operate) GO Transit and to promote coordinated decision-making on matters related to transportation and other infrastructure among municipalities in the GTA and the neighboring City of Hamilton. With the exception of its authority over GO Transit, the board had no implementing powers: it acted as an advisory and coordinating body to member municipalities. It was not a regional level government and did not collect taxes. When it tried to exercise real control over land-use planning, the province decided to abolish it.

There is a conscience in the GTA that transportation issues must be dealt with (a recent report offers suggestions for “unlocking gridlock”). Given the severity of the region’s traffic problems and in the context of a new, more progressive provincial government, there is now strong incentive to act. How much easier the situation could have been, if regional cooperation and planning had been effective during the fast-growth period.

As the Montreal region considers its transportation and planning options, it will be important to develop a strong regional culture of cooperation and a vision of sustainable development. Despite the fact that regional transit services such as commuter trains and buses carry few passengers compared to the local transit in the city centre, the regional services are the key to suburban development that does not rely entirely on private cars. The cost of regional transit is far less than the cost of new highways, and even less than trying to fix chronic suburban congestion after it is too late.

But the key to everything is funding. Regional cooperation and improved transit service are easy to do when money is available and very difficult otherwise. Governments must be convinced to provide adequate funding sources to public transit and regional planning bodies like the CMM. It will cost much less to everyone in the long term.


La coopération régionale et le développement durable sont des conditions essentielles à tout effort de planification dans le domaine des transports au sein de la nouvelle Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM). Cependant, la coopération régionale et les améliorations de service peuvent difficilement voir le jour sans un financement adéquat. À Vancouver, le dossier du transport public a été transféré en avril 1999 au Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), qui existe depuis juillet 1967. En 35 ans, un esprit de consensus s’y est développé face aux enjeux régionaux. La grande région de Toronto (Greater Toronto Area, GTA) compte pour sa part dix-sept réseaux de transport en commun (incluant GO Transit). S'il existe une forte tradition de coopération à l'intérieur de la nouvelle ville fusionnée de Toronto, il faut toutefois reconnaître que les tentatives de planification à la grandeur de la région manquent de coordination.